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“Hope on the Half Shell:” Report says oysters can fight climate change in the Chesapeake Bay

Oysters along a local shoreline. (Photo courtesy of Chesapeake Bay Foundation)
Oysters along a local shoreline. (Photo courtesy of Chesapeake Bay Foundation)

The humble oyster is one of local leaders’ greatest tools in the fight against climate change, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation says in a new report.

Reefs store carbon underwater and help protect shorelines by absorbing wave intensity during storms, the nonprofit writes in the report released Thursday, titled “Hope on the Half Shell.”

It’s part of what the group calls its “next chapter of oyster restoration,” ramping up efforts to tackle climate change.

“Oysters are one of the things that defines us throughout the Chesapeake Bay region,” said Chris Moore, the Bay Foundation’s Virginia executive director. “They can help us in so many ways as we move forward.”

The nonprofit is calling on leaders throughout the bay’s watershed – particularly Virginia and Maryland – to invest in more oyster restoration for economic, resilience and ecological benefits.

Oysters were once so abundant in the bay that Virginians struggled to navigate around them. Before the 19th century, the oyster population could filter the entire bay’s water volume within days, according to the Bay Foundation. 

The population declined over the past 150 years due to disease, pollution, overfishing and loss of habitat.

“Recovery and management of native oysters has been an ongoing battle from day one,” said Don Boesch, president emeritus of the University of Maryland Environmental Center. 

Officials' goal of boosting oyster populations to even 10% of historic levels “has remained elusive,” he said. But they have gotten closer in recent years. 

The Bay Foundation is part of a coalition that's working to add 10 billion oysters to the Chesapeake by next year. The effort, which includes aquaculture as well as targeted restoration work, is now at about six billion.

The oyster harvest also recently hit a big milestone. During the 2022-23 season, harvesters gathered about 700,000 bushels — the most in 25 years, according to the state. 

Virginia and five other states along with D.C. have been racing to meet a 2025 deadline for Chesapeake Bay water quality benchmarks set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2010.

Officials have said no one’s fully on track to meet the overall standards, which largely center around reducing nutrient pollution from nitrogen and phosphorus. However, they are set to achieve oyster habitat restoration goals for 2025 set under a separate watershed agreement a decade ago. 

“This accomplishment should be seen just as the beginning, not the end,” Boesch said. 

Moore said oysters have historically gone through a “boom and bust cycle” in the bay. The foundation wants to speed up recovery to ensure the population remains on an upward trajectory. 

The new report advocates for about two dozen actions, including boosting the aquaculture industry, facilitating private investment in oyster restoration, establishing oyster harvest quotas and incentivizing the replacement of bulkheads with living shorelines that include oyster reefs.

The foundation estimates that each acre of restored oyster reef could provide services worth $40,000 annually, including stowing away carbon dioxide that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere and contribute to warming the planet.

Katherine is WHRO’s climate and environment reporter. She came to WHRO from the Virginian-Pilot in 2022. Katherine is a California native who now lives in Norfolk and welcomes book recommendations, fun science facts and of course interesting environmental news.

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